May 28, 2010 5:40 PM by Melissa Canone
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is
asking state lawmakers to boost his budget by $27 million over two
years and to broaden his authority to hire outside attorneys so he
can prepare for a lawsuit over the Gulf oil spill.
Caldwell has yet to say who he'll sue or when he'll file such a
"At some point in the future we're going to sue. They might
come to us and have a wheelbarrow full of billions of dollars and
we might not have to sue. But I don't think that's going to
happen," Caldwell said in an interview Friday.
The attorney general asked the Senate Finance Committee for $2
million before the fiscal year ends June 30 and for $25 million to
be added to his 2010-11 budget, saying he'll need the money to hire
oil spill experts, collect evidence and contract with outside
"We don't care where the money comes from. We've got to have
the best possible lawyers," he said.
So far, the dollars haven't been added to the budget bills
moving through the House. Louisiana's budget is riddled with
shortfalls, but the state has a $143 million emergency response
fund that lawmakers could consider tapping if they wanted to fund
"This state has the money it needs to pursue that claim, and
we're going to make sure you have the money to pursue it
properly," said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.
When asked who the state would sue, Caldwell wouldn't offer
details, saying there are many potential responsible parties and it
will take time to winnow down the list. BP PLC and other companies
involved in the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster have been targeted
by more than 130 lawsuits so far.
The Louisiana attorney general's office has hired outside
lawyers and some experts to weigh in on the environmental issues
facing the state and to determine the spill's total effect on the
ecosystem, down to the level of plankton, Caldwell said. He refused
to give an exact number.
He compared the situation to the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska's
coast, saying the Alaska Legislature gave the attorney general's
office there $35 million to hire 50 outside lawyers. But lawyers'
hourly rates were significantly lower in 1989, Caldwell cautioned.
"They were hiring lawyers out of that money at $125 an hour.
Now they've got paralegals who are making more than that," he
said. "What we want is an equal playing field."
Caldwell also used his budget hearing Friday to pitch a proposal
to let his office hire attorneys on a contingency fee basis, a
system in which the outside lawyers get a percentage of whatever
damages are collected rather than an hourly fee.
The bill by Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, is
expected to be heard on the Senate floor next week.
The attorney general scrapped the idea last year amid strong
opposition from the business community. But that was before the
Deepwater Horizon explosion pushed oil into Louisiana's
ecologically sensitive wetlands and onto the state's shores.
Caldwell said he'd like to hire trial attorneys for an oil spill
lawsuit on a contingency fee basis, but lawmakers on the Finance
Committee questioned the need, saying if they gave Caldwell
millions of dollars to work on the lawsuit, he shouldn't need
Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, noted Alaska's attorney
general hired hourly attorneys and didn't use contingency fees.
"Just be sensitive to the fact if we win a billion-dollar case
and three lawyers make $500 million, it won't look very good if we
could have done it another way," LaFleur said.
Donahue also expressed concerns, saying businesses don't like
contingency fee contracts.
Caldwell said Chaisson's bill contains safeguards against
outside lawyers abusing the contingency fee system to file lawsuits
for the sake of forcing cash settlements with corporations that
don't want the expense of lingering litigation.